Peace Movement Blues

Where is the U.S. peace movement when the White House is preparing to escalate the Afghanistan war for the second time since President Barack Obama took office over 10 months ago?

The Bush era antiwar movement has ebbed and flowed a few times since it abruptly materialized just after 9/11 and then exploded into a massive force in the months leading up to President George W. Bush’s unjust and illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003.  This was actually the high point of mass activism.  A decline began with the invasion and the bipartisan congressional declaration of support for the new war.  Still, the movement remained huge and mounted many large national and local demonstrations for years.

The Democratic victory in the 2006 Congressional election signaled a further erosion of peace activities because of the erroneous assumption that the new Congress would end or limit the wars.  Antiwar forces were hardly visible during the 2008 campaign, despite the mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan, because many efforts were focused on electing Sen. Barack Obama, whom many Democrats considered to be a peace candidate.

The low point was reached earlier this year — a remarkable development during two ongoing wars — about the time President Obama reignited the Afghan war by ordering another 21,000 troops to the battlefield.

The hard core of the movement, though relatively small, has remained intact.  The left wing and the pacifist sector are engaged and active, now focused on ending the Afghan war, and there will be growth as Obama continues to escalate the war.  The national peace organizations and coalitions are also still in place; however, most of them have become less active as their numbers fell and funding diminished.

The mass base of the movement that confronted the Bush Administration’s wars — the Democratic voters — are standing on the sidelines, unwilling to publicly criticize President Obama.  This is despite the fact that opinion polls report a majority of the American people now oppose the Afghan war, including some 70% of Democrats.

Over the last year or so I’ve spoken to a number of local and national peace leaders and many rank-and-file activists about the drop in antiwar numbers.  Everybody has felt the decline.  As an organizer for the last 15 years in New York State’s Hudson Valley region I have witnessed it up close.

For example, seven years ago in October 2002 our group at the time organized an antiwar demonstration of 2,500 people at Academy Green Park in the small city of Kingston.  On the same day several buses full of local activists traveled to Washington to attend the ANSWER Coalition’s big peace rally that drew up to 100,000 people.  The war hadn’t even started.  It was five months away.  This was the beginning stage of the largest “preemptive” antiwar movement in U.S. history.

On October 17 a couple of weeks ago in the same city park — with two wars in progress, 20 co-sponsoring groups and an excellent speaker list — our antiwar rally attracted 100 people.  There was no Washington protest to draw crowds away, and the anticipated rain didn’t fall.  We knew half the participants by name.  There were antiwar actions in some 40 cities that day, but the ones we heard from all had lower numbers than in the past.  The Capital District movement to our north brought out between 200-250 people for a well publicized and organized Albany demonstration, but a couple of years ago they attracted a crowd of over 600.

Here’s one more example.  Over the years my co-organizer Donna Goodman and I have arranged for 22 bus trips to bring Hudson Valley activists to distant peace rallies, mostly in Washington.  We average between three and five buses.  That’s roughly 150 to 250 people.  Our biggest success was in January 2003, two months before the Iraq war, when we sent seven buses to DC to join an ANSWER protest that attracted a half-million people.

Six years later this March, as President Obama was expanding the war by deploying another 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, we managed to bring 37 people to a demonstration in Washington.  Some 10,000 people showed up for a good rally and an exciting march.  We were empowered by the rally and proud to have made the effort, but it was dismaying to see how our numbers had dwindled.

In our talks with people about the movement’s decline, the main emphasis always pointed to the fact that the constituency for our broad peace movement was disintegrating.  At issue is figuring out exactly why, and then how to help rebuild our forces.

The question of “why” isn’t difficult.  In addition to talks with a number of movement organizers and unwavering activists., we have communicated with quite a few readers about this matter in person and mainly by email (over 85% of our 3,500 Activist Newsletter readers voted Democratic last November).  The conclusion is that the Democratic voters who have stopped showing up do so for one or more of three reasons: (1) The big majority simply don’t want to publicly oppose a war waged by a Democratic president — especially when he is under strong attack by the Republicans.  (2) Some think it is a “good” war.  (3) Some believe that peace demonstrations “don’t do any good” and that we’re “just talking to ourselves.”  Let’s examine this point by point.

We’ve encountered point number one before.  Many Democratic voters were extremely reluctant to criticize President Lyndon Johnson during the first couple of years in which he widened the Vietnam war.  But by the end of LBJ’s first full term many Democrats turned on him to the point that he decided not to run for reelection.  He was responsible for the passage of progressive domestic legislation far beyond anything Obama will achieve, but his war policy destroyed him.

On the other hand, Democratic voters, with the liberals in the vanguard, stuck with President Bill Clinton during his unjust and illegal bombardment of Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999.  Clinton learned the big lesson from Vietnam: launch a short war with few American deaths.  He wisely did his dirty work in only three months.  And while thousands of Serbian Yugoslavs were killed and much of the civilian infrastructure was wrecked, no American died because the war was conducted from the air beyond the reach of anti-aircraft fire.  Now, of course, there are American drones assassinating people in western Pakistan.  Sometimes they hit their target, sometimes a wedding party.

Bush served two terms despite his long imperialist wars, in part because the number of U.S. deaths is relatively low (the GI death toll in Vietnam was nearly 13 times greater).  Bush was reelected in 2004 because the Democratic Party not only refused to oppose the war but candidate John Kerry kept telling the voters he would be much better at winning than blundering Bush.  Given the choice between two pro-war candidates, the voters decided not to change warhorses in mid-carnage.

There was an active antiwar movement during Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign but most peace people fell in line behind Kerry, as did United for Peace and Justice, the biggest coalition, and most moderate peace groups.  ANSWER stood apart and picketed both political conventions.  A week after Bush’s depressing reelection we called a local rally to get people up and running again.  I opened by remarking that “98% of the American people just voted for war.”  A woman in the front row interrupted, “No! We voted for Kerry!”  Neither Kerry nor Obama (who made it clear in the campaign that he wanted to fight in Afghanistan) was a peace candidate, but most Democrats seemed to think they were.

The American peace movement has to win back the Democratic voters on the issue of ending the Afghan war, and bring them back into the streets to demand peace.  Even if a majority of voters want an end to war, the ballot box is meaningless unless there is a candidate running on a genuine antiwar platform.  We respect and support the antiwar members of Congress, such as our region’s Rep. Maurice Hinchey, but they are up against a large pro-war bipartisan majority and almost always get aced out.  Put a million people in the streets on the same day and we’ll begin to get results; do it again and again, and we’ll end a war.

This brings us to point two, the fact that some peace Democrats think the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan is a good war.  Government and mass media distortions have succeeding in confusing many people.  The movement is partly responsible for focusing over the years almost exclusively on Iraq.  Now that the Obama Administration is widening the Afghan war it is essential for the peace forces to increase their educational efforts.

We’re trying to do our part in the November 5, 2009 issue of our newsletter.  The two-part article on the U.S. in Afghanistan contains information that will be useful to the reader in assessing this war, particularly those who think it is just.  The article on Afghan Women and the War is important because we’re all worried about their situation, which remains deplorable, but the women quoted in this article perceive two oppressors: the Taliban and the U.S.-NATO occupiers (check out the CNN video link).  Also, the Afghan war article by Bill Moyers (“Bring Back the Draft”) provokes some interesting thoughts.

I’ve heard point three before, many times, regarding the alleged inefficacy of peace protests, and that we’re talking to ourselves.  The Vietnam era was filled with it, and yet — as the Vietnamese government will tell you, the peace struggle in the U.S. was an essential ingredient in ending the war and reunifying the country.

Many people think that because the mass media usually ignores our actions that what we do has no effect.  Some say, “We demonstrate and nothing happens.”  I’ve often been told that all we do is speak to each other.  Some say we’re so irrelevant the White House isn’t even listening.  All this is wrong, and I’ll explain why.

It is important to understand that we are involved in a very long struggle for peace.  We are trying to change the policies of history’s most powerful military state, which has been engaged in a hot or cold war, openly or clandestinely, without interruption since it entered World War II, 68 years ago.  Many of Washington’s martial actions have been neither legal nor just.  The mass media is a virtual adjunct of the government as far as foreign military policy is concerned.  The U.S. is a militarist state and spends more money each year on wars past, present, and future than the military budgets of every other country in the world combined.  It has between 700 and 1,000 military bases circling the globe.

This is a tough nut to crack.  Our side, the peace and justice side, often doesn’t win.  And when we do win it sure doesn’t happen overnight.  Of course the mass media ignores us, but that doesn’t invalidate our efforts.  Sure, we often demonstrate and nothing happens.  We’re up against big odds.  It’s a matter of unceasing struggle, protest after protest, meeting after meeting, year after year.

Mass demonstrations are essential.  They are the collective expression of the political opposition of the American people to the aggressive wars conducted in their name by their government, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Yugoslavia and Nicaragua, or Vietnam and Haiti.  Our mass protests are acts of public solidarity with the victims of unjust war, and help to strengthen their resistance.  And mass protests in Washington, the seat of government and the Pentagon, are necessary to turn the spotlight directly on the warmakers.

Frequently we do speak to ourselves, and it is important to do so.  That’s why the great religions have been meeting once a week for thousands of years.  It’s what keeps their movement together, and ours as well.  In our own experience, we have found that under normal conditions, between 15% and 20% of the people at every rally or bus trip we organize have shown up for the first time, and many come back.  At the beginning stages of new wars the proportion is much higher.

It’s untrue that the White House doesn’t listen because we’re irrelevant.  All presidents make a show of indifference to our protests.  But when we are of mass size they are supplied with detailed reports about the status of our forces.  President Nixon made a big point of laughing off the peace movement, but if you read Robert Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger for instance, you will understand he was obsessed with the antiwar movement and carefully calculated its impact.

It is essential for us to keep on protesting against aggressive wars or Washington will run riot with military adventurism.  The only significant opposition to a bigger war in Afghanistan will come from that sector of the peace movement willing to confront the power in Washington regardless of who is president.  And some members of Congress will speak up, too, and they are strengthened knowing our mass movement is out there.

I believe without doubt that in the cynical and conservative atmosphere choking our country today this movement remains our principal instrumentality against Washington’s unjust wars and imperialist escapades.  Without this movement we have no voice!  Let us make that voice ever louder as we rebuild the movement and go forward toward the attainment of peace.

Jack A. Smith is a former editor of the (US) Guardian Newsweekly and has edited the Activist Newsletter for the last decade: <>.  He may be contacted at <>.  This article was originally part of the 5 November 2009 issue of the Activist Newsletter

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